Thinking of the debate between classical music and popular music always brings the same person to mind: Theodor Adorno. A musicologist and philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Adorno had a lot to say about which form of music was the serious one and which one wasn’t. To him, classical art was serious, and popular music (which roughly translates to any music you can dance to, including jazz) was not a real form of music. Popular music, according to Adorno, was all standardized and the same, and was mused merely as a way to distract less-intelligent, less-cultured listeners from their work. It’s a means of pacification and it lacks true talent.
Despite the leaps and bounds that music and music studies have made (jazz and/or popular music studies are now respected, scholarly fields), there is definitely still a stigma. Saying you’re a classically trained musician still gets peoples attention and makes them assume you’re more talented than the kid whose lessons entailed playing Beatles songs on his guitar. But the fact is, at least to me, that music is music. It has deep cultural connotations and brings together a community of music-makers and listeners, and as long as those relationships are being expressed, then who cares what the music sounds like?
There are definitely some distinct differences between classical and popular music, though. For one, classical performers simply have more at stake. The classical community has been marginalized and pushed out of the spotlight, and the people that are still playing classical music are not just providing a means to hear it, but are keeping the genre extant. On the other hand, popular musicians are working within a huge system of music and musicians, and their only challenge is to create something we haven’t heard before. I do think there is some truth in Adorno’s belief that pop music is standardized, though I don’t believe it to the extent he would want me to. There is a lot of music on the radio that sounds the same. The structure, the instruments, the voice, etc., are all the same. Popular music is a victim (or perhaps successor) of consumer-centric culture, and the songs that are mass-distributed are more like commodities than art. That’s not to say that all pop music is commodified, though, or that classical music isn’t.
In an over-generalized sense, I think that the classical versus pop debate exists, but it’s not real. We have been told to believe that classically trained means better, or that having to wear a suit to a concert instead of jeans somehow means that the music is more serious. If more classical artists were willing to include popular music themes, and more popular artists were willing to include some classical components, then people wouldn’t be so quick to affirm that there’s a rift. If you’ve ever heard Third Stream jazz, you’d know that this synthesis of genres can work beautifully, but it’s all in vain unless people believe in it. Passion is passion, and as long as that exists, then who cares what the music is called?